In 1994, John Smith was convicted of murder and attempted murder. Approximately 15 years later, the main eyewitness in the case, Landu Mvuemba, recanted his testimony. At the time he recanted his testimony, Mvuemba was facing his own criminal charges in an unrelated case. Based on Mvuemba recanting, Smith’s criminal conviction was overturned.
Thereafter, Smith filed a civil lawsuit against the detectives handling his case, claiming they coerced Mvuemba to make a false identification. Smith also sued a detective in a neighboring division, claiming that she received an alleged tip that she did not relay to the investigating detectives.
Jury Finds for Detectives at Civil Trial
In January 2016, the civil case went to trial. The detectives denied Smith’s allegations that they coerced witnesses or concealed any evidence, and presented evidence demonstrating that Smith’s allegations were unsupported and many allegations were simply not feasible. After six days of trial, the jury unanimously entered a verdict in favor of all three detectives.
Ninth Circuit Affirms Judgment for Detectives
Smith filed an appeal, alleging that the trial court committed reversible error when it excluded evidence that the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board (“VCB”) had made a finding that Smith was “innocent” when it awarded him money through a statute, which allowed individuals who have had their convictions overturned petition the state for money. Smith also argued that the Court set restrictive time limits which hindered his ability to present his case.
The Detectives responded that the trial court properly excluded the VCB findings because it would be unduly prejudicial to the detectives and confusing to the jury. The Detectives noted the trial court struck the proper balance by allowing Smith to present evidence that he did not commit the murder and showing his conviction was overturned based on Mvuemba recanting, but excluding the finding by a government claims board. A jury may confuse the claims board with a court, and although Smith filed a petition to be declared “factually innocent,” through the Superior Court, his petition was denied on procedural grounds. Moreover, it would be unfair to use this evidence against the detectives because they did not participate in the VCB proceedings and it was unnecessary for Smith to prove his claims. Finally, the Detectives argued that Smith could not show that he was harmed by the Court’s time limits because he never objected to needing more time during trial, and actually finished presenting his case an hour under the time allotted by the Judge.
On June 20, 2018, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment in favor of the Detectives.
Susan Coleman represented Detectives Block and DePasquale at trial, and Ms. Coleman and Kristina Doan Strottman handled the Ninth Circuit Appeal.